Thursday, December 16, 2004

MLB's Capitol Punishment

Editorial note: cross-posted at The Diamond

It's Selig, Not Cropp, Pulling the Switch on this Execution

The city council of the District of Columbia heroically drew a line in the stand against corporate welfare -- sort of -- by voting Tuesday to require that any new ballpark in the district be financed at least 50% from private sources. Bearing in mind that the city is still picking up over $400 million of required infrastructure improvements and property acquisition via the right of eminent domain, and is committing to over $100 million in actual stadium construction costs, you wouldn't think requiring Major League Baseball or its designated new owner to pick up about $120 million or so would be a big deal. After all, the District is not just kicking up $600 million plus in new funds, it's providing a reasonable facility (RFK Stadium) right away, and it's building a capital facility that, unlike, say, an arena or a convention center, has virtually no use other than for a single industry to use 81 days in a 365 day year.

The pushback from the baseball establishment has been spearheaded by the likes of Tom Boswell, respected long-time columnist for the Washington Post. Bos wrote a screed against Council Chair Linda Cropp that was well beneath his stature as a baseball writer:

By a 10-3 vote, the council demanded that at least half of the cost of any new stadium be built with private financing, which does not exist, rather than public funding, as stipulated in D.C.'s deal with baseball...A stadium in search of hypothetical funding, funding that may never be found, is not a stadium at all. It is just a convenient political lie.
Of course, the "deal" DC had agreed upon was entirely formulated by DC's Mayor without the participation of the council, in a series of literally back-room meetings with MLB. Back-room meetings done out of the glare of the public spotlight in order to divert taxpayer money to corporate special interests is hardly a new thing in Washington, and public handouts to baseball are nothing new. Our President turned a $106,000 personal investment in the Texas Rangers into a $10 million payout when he sold his small interest in the team, largely due to a completely publically-financed ballpark in Arlington, Texas. City after city has caved in to the special interest that is baseball, a multibillion-dollar highly profitable enterprise that has now had nearly 80% of its capital facilities built at taxpayer expense.

Baseball continues to try to sell the old bar of soap of "economic development" as being the ultimate payoff for a city, even though respected economists like Smith College's Andrew Zimbalist have thoroughly debunked the myth of the ballpark-as-development-engine. And MLB itself will profit by well more than the $120 million it or its buyer for the Expos/Nationals will be asked to pony up for the ballpark -- just on the sale price of the franchise. You'd think that if the Expos/Nats were being run for the benefit of the sport overall, a little investment in a ballpark would be a small downpayment for an almost immediate financial return.

I think Linda Cropp and her nine colleagues are heroes. They haven't voted down baseball in DC, as Boswell so disingenuously suggests. They've simply said that in a time of economic hard times, in a city with limited means as it is, raising taxes of over $700 million is simply too much. We'll throw in $600 million if the industry to benefit puts up $100 million or so, they're saying. Throw us a bone. Give us a sign that this is a genuine public-private partnership, and we'll take it on faith after that that the District will get all these alleged benefits baseball is pledging, and in return you can play in what is by far the largest untapped sports market in the hemisphere.

But the intense, insane greed of baseball, the belief that if they cave in for even one dollar they will no longer be able to milk the public trough, may keep baseball out of DC. And to the DC council I say: more power to you. The line has to be drawn somewhere. If you don't get a baseball team, the city will go on. It will be sad, because baseball fans deserve a team, but extortion -- and that's what this is -- is not a way to do business, build good government, or try to redevelop portions of the city that need some help.

When I lived in Pittsburgh, I paid a portion of my taxes every year to pay for Three Rivers Stadium, thirty years after it had opened. For a while I paid for Three Rivers and the new PNC Park and the new football stadium (the latter of which was at least partly privately-financed). That has not resulted in a big downtown development boom -- the area around PNC is still dedicated to parking, not new businesses -- nor even a winning baseball team. Even the attendance at Pirates' games isn't that much better, after the mismanagement of the club continues to drive fans away with poor play on the field. This is the kind of damage the movie "Field of Dreams" has done -- city after city, like Pittsburgh, has mindlessly obeyed the ethereal commands of "If You Build it, They Will Come" without looking at the actual realities.

Fans should really care about this. Baseball's spiraling labor costs have come 100% as the result of the voluntary actions of the owners. The owners' response has been to get a big portion of the costs of any business -- capital costs for a facility -- to be paid by taxpayers, and in turn they try to spend even more of their money on labor (players) in the vain hope that that's the way to turn a profit. Smart clubs like Oakland and Cleveland proved that large gobs of money is not necessary for a competitve team; Oakland doesn't make a pile of money, but it's solvent in an old facility (paid for by public funds, of course, albeit nearly 40 years ago). San Francisco built the best ballpark in the majors entirely with private money, and they continue to sell out and remain competitive with a mid-level payroll (OK, and a guy named Bonds -- who takes up a good portion of that payroll.)

So, as a baseball fan, I say: Linda Cropp is a hero to the sport, and to her city. A city with continuing crime and public health problems, that can't even raise its own revenues in the manner which the citizens desire because of the lack of true "home rule" and a meddling Congress, can't afford to spend that amount of money without some kind of return. Asking baseball to put up a small portion of the cost of a facility which will be useful only to a monopolistic business is a very, very small thing to ask, and it took guts to demand it as a price of admission.

I have no doubts Mr. Selig will pull the switch after giving DC residents the bait. But this switch will kill baseball for another generation of kids in DC, who had the poor choice of paying with their schools and hospitals for baseball tickets. They'll likely grow up to be soccer fans instead, and we, as baseball fans, will all be poorer in a generation.

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